Category Archives: On the Bedside Table

I have been remiss

The regular book reviews have been an epic fail of late.  Here’s a selection of what’s crossed The Bedside Table in the last few months, two of which have made it to this year’s short list over on The Bookshelf:


And here’s what’s still to come, the current TBR pile:


Still reading, little writing…

But I managed to miss one mighty tome from that TBR shelf, for it rests with the other Montefiores, for one very rainy day which no doubt will be along soon enough.




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An Island In The Sunlight

A couple of books crossed the table recently, and as often is the case one leads on to the other.

First up was Islands, a grand piece of research by Canadian J Edward Chamberlain.  He takes us through time, from Formation to the Origin of Species; and around the globe, from Galapagos to Rockall, Jamaica to St Kilda.

From there he dips into island tales, inevitably touching on Defoe and Stevenson and so much more.  A short book, packed with goodies.

Another island beckoned.  As my addiction to Saturday night sub-titled drama grows I found myself in Iceland for a few weeks.  Unlike the Danish dramas it is particularly difficult to pick up the gist of the Icelandic without those words at the bottom of the screen.  But it managed to bring a series of darkness and gloom, long nights and harsh days, to brighten  a Scottish winter.

I came across Sarah Moss’ Names For The Sea during the school holidays, urged by Urchins to drop into a bookshop, for them of course.  Right from the opening pages I knew I was going to enjoy Sarah’s tales.  Planning to move the family to Iceland for a year, and arriving at the same time as the IMF, she packed some essential boxes.  From the kitchen came the sort of ingredients that have the drool rising, from pomegranate syrup to sumac, cumin too; and the one box of books allowed left thousands on the shelf.  Instantly appealing.


And so to Iceland we go, family of four, children young, for a year.  Long summer days; hot pools; long dark winter; unpronounceable names; and an economy in a bit of a crisis.

We learn early on that our guide is a Professor of Creative Writing, raising expectations of the read in store.  She is teaching in Iceland for a year, including on travel writing.  Higher still.  She does not disappoint.

Between taking the job and arriving the crash of Icesave has done untold damage.  The purchasing power of a local salary makes much of the little that remains in the shops unaffordable, and immediately the family is on the back foot, whilst trying to integrate and to learn.  But they are welcomed, and help is at hand.

The boys pick up the language, as their parents struggle and the locals revert to faultless English.  The cycle of the seasons rolls on and light becomes dark; layers added to the clothes.  Eventually walking and cycling is impossible and they succumb to driving.  It seems that indicators are surplus to requirements on the city free-for-all.  The lava roads through the hills bring other challenges.

There are sagas to hear, and knitting to marvel at.  And there are elves and hidden-folks which makes me think of a dear friend who would love those tales and pick up those vibes.  The local customs are different, from speaking on the out-breath to food; from studying to raising families.  The Yule Lads sounds to be my sort of winter festival.

During those post-crash years Iceland suffered, as foreign currency mortgages became unaffordable, and the diet went back to local produce with limited imports within the purchasing power.  But from there the country grew, as we find out later.

As the time on the island draws to a close there is another event.  Remember The Ash Cloud?  Well that keeps people stranded, visitors away, departures delayed.  Eventually the family gets back to England, to move house again, from Canterbury to Cornwall.  And as the summer tourists flock to the south west a holiday is due, and back they go to Iceland; to old friends and familiar places, to parts unvisited too.  The boys lose the language as quickly as they picked it up.  But they have purchasing power this time, and prices are affordable.

I think I’d like to spend time in Iceland, and certainly enjoyed reading these well-told tales of the Moss family’s year.  Could you do it, if you had the right job opportunity?

So with islands to the fore, and dreams of summer, I’ll sign off with the current ear worm;  enjoy The Island:


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A Landscape Without Raptors Is An Unnatural One

Those are the words of James Macdonald Lockhart, from his first book, Raptor.  Anyone who has delved into the pages of recent best-seller H is for Hawk, discovered the writings of such as T H White and J A Baker, or enjoyed with me Conor Mark Jameson’s Searching for the Goshawk, will love this book.  Lockhart takes us the length and breadth of the country and introduces us to all of the 15 birds of prey that grace our skies.


He is guided by the earlier works of his grandfather, Seton Gordon, who’s Days with the Golden Eagle was recently republished, and more so by the wanderings and the writings of William MacGillivray, from the first half of the 19th century.  I’ll find out more about MacGillivray later.  He walked 838 miles from Aberdeen to London, taking extensive notes of the flora and fauna along the way.  Later he became a contemporary of both Audobon and Darwin; in short an expert in his field.

With MacGillivray as his main guide, though not alone as a 17 page research bibliography confirms, Lockhart takes us from windswept Orkney to sun-kissed Devon, meandering far and wide, spotting hawks and eagles  and telling us much more.

On the trail of the red kite in Wales he reminds us that a couple of hundred years ago one of the perils faced by the egg collectors of the day was the threat of half-killed adders in the nest.  He confesses to a touch of cryptozoology – no I didn’t know either, but it’s the study of hidden animals, the search for creatures that may not exist.  Birds of prey may, at times, seem just as elusive.  MacGillivray’s Descriptions of the Rapacious Birds of Great Britain might be interesting.

Here at Grasshopper Towers the buzzard is an everyday presence, often mobbed by crows.  I remember vividly a golden eagle, grounded at the roadside by torrents of rain, on that memorable day with the BBC’s Mark Stephen and Helen Needham.  I’m told there may have been a hen harrier on the roof; the kestrel too hunts the fields regularly.  But other than the splendour of red kites, either in the hills of Wales or further north from here, raptors have remained elusive.

That said I haven’t watched the way Lockhart watches, spending days in hedges, on cathedral roofs, or anywhere else his prey may be likely to appear.  More often than not he spots something else, and is off on another tangent.  But MacGillivray leads him on.

He gives us a hugely enjoyable read, a book well worth a place on the nature shelf, and inspires us pay more attention to what goes on all around.

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Another Epic Russian Novel

Whilst some have been enjoying War & Peace on the box, I’ve been engrossed in the writings of Anatoli Rybakov, and in particular his Children of the Arbat trilogy.

Rybakov grew up in Moscow’s Arbat district, spent a decade in Siberian exile, and was then decorated for his efforts in WWII.  That might have some influence on his tale.  There are others in the story however, and it is the warp and the weft of those lives through those times that fascinates.


You may recall my enjoyment of Petrograd, the first volume in William Owen Roberts trilogy, translated from the Welsh.  That started pre-Revolution.  However I need patience, for the second and third instalments are not due to be translated and published for a year or three yet.  I stayed with the Russian theme, enjoying Generations of Winter, from Vassily Aksyomov, which took us to those years of Stalin and Beria.

And it  is back to those times that Rybakov’s translation from the Russian takes us too.  It is an epic tale and I stayed with all three volumes uninterrupted, devouring close on 2,000 pages, as those children grow and live, and love, despite it all.  Hardships come, as schooling progresses through the Komsomol to the Party.  Marriages come and go.

Rybakov treats us to both sides of the ruble coin of the day as we follow careers to wherever they may lead, or be told to go.  Fifteen years or so after leaving school the war changes everything, including those careers.

Whilst much of the tale centres on the streets and the buildings of Moscow, and whatever may be hidden within, we travel further, eastwards of course, and to Paris.  Rybakov peppers his tale with the events of the days, with Stalin, and then with Hitler.  War comes to Russia and the inevitable route to Stalingrad.

You might just enjoy spending some time with Nina and Lena, Yuri and Sasha and all those that impacted on their lives.  There is much hardship, and much kindness; and there is much more than that.



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John Aitchison is one of these guys we marvel at from time to time; his name appears in the credits on, amongst others, Frozen Planet.  He travels to far flung parts toting a mountain of camera equipment, and a battered old hide.  He films wildlife, brilliantly.

In The Shark And The Albatross we find that he can write beautifully too, as he takes us with him to those distant parts.  The front cover is a stunning shot, captured in the lens after endless patience, waiting, watching.


But it is the stories behind those shots, of being in those places, watching nothing much at all, that make this such a grand read.  There are hot places too, as we follow the Yellowstone wolves, or ride elephants in the Bandhavgarh jungle looking for the remaining tigers.

The cold takes us to the far north, and to the deep south.  In Svalbard the bears contend with the disappearing ice.  In the isles around Antarctica we watch colonies of different penguins deal with the same issue.  Then we head to the frozen continent itself, to the ice shelf, and the emperors.

Aitchison sets tough targets.  He doesn’t want to see the beasts themselves.  He wants to catch them hunting, being hunted; that first flight.  He is at his best when there is nothing to see, when he listens, for hours on end, unable to move.

It is a business that means vast amounts of time away from the family, from those milestones we have with our children, and our elderly in their final years.  One of the finest photos in the book was taken by son Rowan, and the story of how he got it is as inspiring as anything Rowan’s father achieved, as Scottish otters take their place with the elusive at the ends of the earth.

Here’s a few of Aitchison’s words, just to whet your appetite:

Cloud shadows.  Water-dapple and dancing light.  A strip of sans, blindingly white: an island made entirely of broken coral and shells, at my feet, the sea.  This sea, the colour of glass, stacked layer upon layer: a clear and vivid green, like the eyes of a cat.  There are seven squat bushes on the island, moulded by the salt wind and decorated, like low Christmas trees, with birds called noddies.  They are terns, chocolate-coloured, evenly spaced, all facing the wind: the ever present wind.

It really is a wonderful read, and goes straight to the top of my 2016 list, where it may well remain.  Now I need to find a space in the favoured bookcases, in the front room, rather than consign it to the nature shelf. It’s that good, and some of you know the quality of my nature shelf.

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Something’s Fishy

Age, as one may know, has some impact on the memory.  I had thought I had written before on both the Guga and the Nairn fishwife, but perhaps not.  Both came to mind of late.  And a favourite tie came out of the closet.

Donald S Murray, a Stornoway man, wrote  his tribute to the Men of Ness and their annual sojourn to Sula Sgeir in The Guga Hunters.  I have yet to sample that delicacy, the young gannet from the cliffs of a distant isle.  In his latest work, Herring Tales, Murray surpasses the odours of the guga, both in the harvesting and in the cooking, with the odd recipe around the heritage of the herring.


Hailing, as I do, from a long line of Ag-Labs and assorted ne’er-do-wells from the East Neuk of Fife there is occasion where a fishwife may appear in the family tree, historically of course I should add.  I had also thought I had presented a picture of the Fishwife Statue from Nairn harbour, but that too is not to be found.


In his herring quest Murray visited many of Scotland’s harbours, and plenty further afield too, for the industry covered pretty much all of the North Sea, and beyond to Iceland and the Baltic, from Netherlands to Norway.  And much of the industry mirrored the heritage of our own shores, right up until the time the klondikers anchored in the Minch and notices in cyrillic appeared on Ullapool shop fronts treating the Russians then as we treat our school-children yet – no more than two at any one time.

Much has been written of the humble herring over the years, and sung, and painted.  Murray takes us to museums and festivals.  We dip into Eyemouth, and the traditions of the Herring Queen.  And there I am minded too of another quest, long forgotten.

Legend has it that we lost family in the Eyemouth Disaster.  My attempts on the family tree some years ago, when I unearthed those doughty folk of Cellardyke and beyond, failed to find a link to the kin perishing at Eyemouth.  October of this year marks the 135th anniversary of that day when the fleet took to the waves and failed to return.  Maybe by then I will have found a trail of fishermen following the herring from one port to another, or of those fishwives taking their hardened skills down the coast, and roots being formed.

It might be one for The Genealogist, or perhaps not.  If only I could find the notes I once wrote of those that perished at Eyemouth.  Peter Aitchison’s Children of the Sea is the place to start, a book to read again.  Since I last read that I have added Daniel McIver’s An Old Time Fishing Town – Eyemouth to the collection, the original source of much of Aitchison’s researches.  There might be more there for the family quest.

Donald S Murray, in his latest work, brings all this to the fore.  He writes of times that only began to wane with the arrival of the fridge and the freezer in every household, the demise of barrels and the salt, before the herring stocks diminished.  I’ve never been partial to a bit of roll-mop, or even oatmeal coating, but it is clear that we were not alone in relying on those silver darlings in times past.

So I might read some more, Neil Gunn perhaps, I might eat some more, and I might drink some more.  If ever someone offers to open for you a can of surstromming, proclaiming it a rare treat to rival the guga, then run, very far and very fast.  Or better still, just read Murray’s description.  And the tie?  Ah well, that is where the dram comes in, produced as it is by the makers of the Maritime Malt, those good folks of Old Pulteney.  Cheers, mine’s a 10 year old.


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One is very happy

A parcel just arrived; the result of a lengthy quest.  The regular reader may recall the delights I encountered in discovering the whimsical world of Richard Halliburton, who died tragically young when the Chinese Junk he had made failed to appear in San Francisco after setting out from Hong Kong, lost somewhere in the Pacific.

A few years ago those good folks at Tauris Parke Paperbacks re-published Halliburton’s The Flying Carpet, his tale of the exploits he and pilot Moye Stephens had in traipsing the world in a bi-plane.  Marvellous, marvellous stuff.

That led me on to reading just about everything Halliburton had written, and to sourcing the original volumes in addition to the recently published versions.  I found a biography from Gerry Max and learnt more of our intrepid traveller, including what was known of that final voyage.


But one part of his life continued to elude me.  When The Flying Carpet arrived at Timbuktu Halliburton heard of a young German flyer, a female flying solo, who had departed just ahead of him.  But he met up with Elly Beinhorn as they hopped across Persia and India and onwards to Australia.  His St Louis Blues was exchanged for her Falling In Love Again.  Adventures were had.

Elly Beinhorn wrote about her adventures, and I discovered that there had been an English translation of Alleinflug, published by Geoffrey Bles in 1935.  The Halliburton collection demanded that I track it down, besides I really wanted to read the tales of her flight round the world, as well as her thoughts on the bold Richard.

And so a quest began.  The dealers at the book fair in York shrugged; even a German dealer who made the trip had not heard of his compatriot, heroine of the skies between the wars.  Periodically, my favoured second-hand book search facilities chugged into life, but the name of Elly Beinhorn produced only nein, when tagged with English.  EBay could offer lots of photographs, or volumes in German.  Hopes rose when I posted a request and a few months later a link appeared.

But it was ex-libris, and thus plastered with all the usual stickers and stamps that confirmed a life in the library, and thus well and truly thumbed rather than cherished.  Besides the price sought reflected that someone was looking for it, and not something I would pay for a volume soiled by library use, or even a pristine copy.

Today the postie brought a parcel, and at long last that sought-after volume can take a place on the shelf beside young Elly’s fellow flyer.  According to Halliburton she mended motors as neatly as socks.  I’ll get round to reading it one day soon, and might just tell you what she had to say.  But for now I’m thrilled just to have Flying Girl in my hands, and to make a space on the shelf.


I had been passing a few idle hours on line the other night when I dipped into various book resources.  On a whim I had a look at Oxfam Books, and there, to my astonishment, the name of Elly Beinhorn produced a response, donated, the English translation, and at a very acceptable price given the rarity of this book and my long search to find it.  The Grasshopper grins, goofy, and with thanks to whoever passed it on to the charity.

Now Moye Stephens, there’s a book somewhere of his life in the cockpit…



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